There is frequently some confusion between three practices, each of which is generically termed 'Taoism'. Since this confusion exists, it is important that the prospective student of Taoism can distinguish between them. The three activities, or practices of Taoism are Philosophical or speculative Taoism, Religious or esoteric Taoism, and Alchemical or 'debased' Taoism.

The earliest of these is Philosophical Taoism (Tao-chia), which is believed to have developed between the sixth to the second century before the Christian era, from the earlier 'Yin-Yang' school of philosophy, whose teachings it inherited and integrated into its own 'philosophical system' through the 'I Ching', now (unfortunately) most widely known as a work of 'divination'.

Philosophical Taoism is generally thought to have been based on the 'Tao Te Ching' of the possibly legendary Lao Tzu, and the work of his follower, Chuang Tzu, which is known through the book which bears his name, and is otherwise without title.

The major development and establishment of Religious Taoism (Tao- chiao) took place during the two Han dynasties (from 206 B.C. to 220 A.D.), and considered the Tao Te Ching as divine teaching, using specific interpretations of Lao Tzu's work as one of its own primary scriptures. The Religious Taoists deified Lao Tzu, describing him as the 'T'ai Shang Lao-chun'. In later centuries, Religious Taoism was to become a very powerful movement throughout China, where it was widely practiced, at least until the middle of the twentieth century.

The earliest known reference to Alchemy (in Eastern and Western Literature) is in the 'Shi-chi', written about eighty-five B.C., but the 'Chou'-i ts'an t'ung ch'i' of Wei Po-yang (c.200 A.D.) was probably the first major alchemical text to use a Taoist work to this end, some authorities believing the treatise to be a derivation of the I Ching. This form of alchemy was referred to by the Philosophical Taoists as 'debased Taoism'.

Of these three 'forms' of Taoism (or practices which called themselves Taoist), Religious and Alchemical Taoism are not mentioned in the text of this work, other than where they, and similar practices, were referred to, usually indirectly, in the Chinese text (and then usually in a derisory manner).

Readers of both the I Ching and the Tao Te Ching will readily appreciate from many of Lao Tzu's statements, that he was certainly well versed in the concepts explained in the earlier work, and accepted its major precept, that all things are always in a state (or process) of change ('I Ching' means 'Book of Changes'). However, even allowing for the age of the I Ching, and the certainty that its concepts were well known in China at the time of Lao Tzu, it would seem, from historical records, that the Tao Te Ching was considered to be a perplexing book, even in the period in which it was written. Although not mentioning either Lao Tzu or the Tao Te Ching (nor the I Ching) by name, many of Chuang Tzu's stories (which are probably apocryphal) serve to illustrate and explain points from the Tao Te Ching. If there were no confusion or doubt, presumably such explanatory material would not have been required.

In its original form, the Tao Te Ching (as it is now known) is believed to have consisted of eighty-one short chapters, these being arranged in two sections, known as the 'Tao Ching' and the 'Te Ching'. The first of these was comprised of thirty-seven chapters, and the second of forty-four chapters. The length of the original work is said to have been approximately five- thousand characters, and it is probable that these were written on bamboo strips or slats, which would then have been bound together to form two scrolls, each appearing somewhat like a venetian blind with vertical slats. These were a common form of 'record' in the period of Lao Tzu, this being known as 'The Period of the Warring States'.

Since it is not known with absolute certainty that a person named 'Lao Tzu' actually lived during the period of the warring states, to categorically describe the Tao Te Ching as the work of Lao Tzu would be without sufficiently valid historical foundation. Even the 'biography of Lao Tzu' which may be found in the 'Historical Records' (Shih-chi) of Ssu-ma Ch'ien (second century B.C.) is not without its inconsistencies. This record describes Lao Tzu as having been an archivist of the Court of Chou, and further states that he is said to have personally instructed Kung Fu Tzu (Confucius).

It is in this last statement that one inconsistency may be found, for other chronicles state the date of the death of Lao Tzu to precede that of the birth of Kung Fu Tzu by nearly half a century. Even the author of the 'Historical Records' states his doubts as to the authenticity of the information available regarding Lao Tzu, and some scholars maintain that the Tao Te Ching does not present a distinctive or single point of view. They argue that it is probably a compilation or anthology of sayings from various writers and schools of thought, reaching its present form in the third century B.C.

Conversely, according to legend, it is said that on his retirement from public office, Lao Tzu headed west, and that the guardian of the pass to the state of Ch'in requested that he write a treatise on the Tao before departing. It is then that Lao Tzu is supposed to have sat for two days, in which time he wrote the Tao Te Ching, after which he left, some writers stating that he was never heard of again, others describing his ascent to heaven in the form of a magnificent dragon.

Whichever story we believe concerning the existence of Lao Tzu, we may reasonably conclude (at least) that there is much contradictory evidence. Although I cannot offer conclusive proof that he did exist, I do not believe that the contradictions prove that such a person did not exist, and neither do I believe they prove the Tao Te Ching to have been written by more than one person. As I have stated, the reasons for my beliefs are admittedly without sufficient 'hard evidence' to withstand strong philosophical questioning, but they are offered here for those who might wish to know of an argument contrary to current academic opinion.

Since one meaning of the words 'Lao Tzu' is 'Old Man', it is very unlikely that they were used as an ordinary (or 'proper') name, but could well have been a 'nickname'. Some authorities claim that this was so in the case of the person in question, the nickname possibly being derived from the fact (?) that he was born with white hair, like that of an old man. This theory seems to borne out by the fact that the second character, can also be used to mean 'child'. However, in the context of teaching and learning, it also means 'master' or 'scholar' (compared with 'pupil' or 'student'). Furthermore, and for the purpose of this discussion, more importantly, the same two characters which form the Chinese 'Lao Tzu' form the words 'old scholar', pronounced as 'roshi' in Japanese, a title usually reserved in that language for a master of Zen teaching.

This means that 'Lao Tzu' is the Chinese equivalent to the Japanese 'Roshi'. For this reason I believe there probably was a person called Lao Tzu, but that Lao Tzu was his title, rather than his name. It may of course be that there were many 'old scholars', all known by that title, but the existence of many has never been considered proof of the non-existence of one.

At this juncture it is perhaps necessary to mention briefly the historical and philosophical relationship between Taoism, Ch'an and Zen. The word 'Zen' is the Japanese pronunciation of the Chinese 'Ch'an', the system attributed to the 'Bodhidharma' (in Japanese 'Daruma'), described by followers of Zen Buddhism as the twenty-eighth Buddhist Patriarch, who is said to have arrived in China in 526 A.D. Although well known to followers of Zen, it is not always known to others that the Bodhidharma then spent nine years in the earliest Chinese Buddhist temple, which had by that time been in existence for over four hundred years. Furthermore, during that period, the original Buddhism of India had undergone many changes in China, much of its teaching having been adapted (Tibetan Buddhists might claim, 'adulterated') by its proximity to Taoism.

Today, in the West at least, the most widely known sects of Zen are Buddhist. However, even before its acceptance by Buddhists, Ch'an (or 'Zen') was accepted by the Chinese followers of Philosophical Taoism (Tao Chia) as an adjunct to their own philosophy and practices. So it was that the 'non-religious' aspects of Zen and Taoism became integrated into the system known in China as 'Ch'an Tao-chia'.

It is probable that we will never know all the reasons for this two-way integration which occurred between Tao-chia and Ch'an, but some of the reasons become apparent when we learn something of the similarities between the philosophies underlying the two systems. It will hopefully suffice to mention that the practitioners of each group probably felt an affinity with the 'fluidity' of thought and action of the practitioners of the other, recognizing this as stemming from the same philosophical source as their own. Similarly, it is very likely that the members of both groups appreciated the 'ethics' of the other, since both philosophies emphasize the development of the individual as a prerequisite to the development of society.

Notwithstanding any inaccuracies in my own interpretation of events, of even greater historical significance is the fact that from about six hundred A.D., the survival of Philosophical Taoism was made possible only through its adoption by Ch'an. Had it not been for this fact, the antagonistic attitude of the Religious Taoists, combined with their growing governmental power, might easily have resulted in the forceful demise of Taoist Philosophy as it is known today.

As to the continued integration and co-existence of Taoism and Zen, we fortunately need look no further than the words of the great Zen scholar, Professor D.T. Suzuki, who said,
"To ask a question about Zen is to ask a question about the Tao."

All this is of course intended to illustrate the links between the two practices which use the same written characters ( ) as a teaching name or honorary title, and that this title may have been used by the author of the Tao Te Ching wishing to retain his anonymity.

If this was the case, it could have been either for reasons of personal safety on the part of the author, or out of deference to his own teachers. Any reader who has knowledge of the history of China during the period of the warring states will readily appreciate, and hopefully sympathize with the first of these reasons, but the second reason perhaps requires some explanation. This is now offered.

Carrying out one's work in an unostentatious manner is an important aspect of Taoist teaching, as is respect for one's teachers. In some instances these two principles were adhered to so rigorously that a writer or painter might either not sign his work at all, or use a pseudonym compiled (possibly as an anagram) from the names of his most revered teachers. It is therefore possible that the author of the Tao Te Ching used the pseudonym 'Lao Tzu' as an acknowledgement of his own teacher, using the title 'old scholar' to refer to that teacher as he might have been known and referred to by his own students.

It is quite likely that the title 'Roshi', used in Zen (Japanese Ch'an) developed as an 'official title' from its earlier Chinese usage. In Zen, it is thought to be rank bad manners to use the real name of one's own teacher in a published work, at least in the context of he or she being one's own teacher (for reasons which I have attempted to explain in the 'Acknowledgements' section), but it is quite acceptable to refer to him (or her) by an honorary title. Combine any of these possibilities with the fact that one's own teacher may have been given or have chosen a 'teaching name' (a pseudonym under which a teacher may work) and it becomes easier to understand why it is impossible to be definitive regarding the 'real name' of the author or authors of the Tao Te Ching. For the purposes of this discussion however, I wish to continue from the assumption that the Tao Te Ching did have an author, and that we may, without too much 'license', refer to him as Lao Tzu.

The second factor which causes me to believe that we should not completely disregard the legend of the writing of the Tao Te Ching concerns its cryptic style. The basis of my belief is twofold. In the first instance, if, as legend tells us, Lao Tzu completed his writing in two days, it is not surprising that it was cryptic, since this would have required him to write at a rate of two and one half thousand words each day. It may therefore be that he wrote as succinctly as possible in order to complete his task as quickly as possible, so that he could continue on his journey into retirement.

Those who know the Tao Te Ching will also know that Lao Tzu did not teach that a task should be rushed; rather, he taught that all things should occur in their natural time. This leads to my second point regarding the cryptic style of the original work.

We know that the keeper of the pass, who made the request for a written copy of Lao Tzu's thoughts, was a well known Taoist of the period named Yin Hsi, also referred to as 'Kwan Yin'. As a Taoist, he would certainly have been familiar with the teachings of Lao Tzu, even though, as he himself is supposed to have told the old philosopher, because of the nature of his work, he had not been able to avail himself of personal tuition from the master. It could be that the 'vagueness' (or seemingly esoteric nature of the first chapter) is due to the fact that Lao Tzu would have had no reason to explain the Tao to someone who was already versed in Tao-chia.

I believe we can assume that, although possibly not nationally famous, Lao Tzu would certainly have been well known in his own province. This would certainly seem to be the case, since Yin Hsi either recognized the figure of Lao Tzu, or his name, otherwise he would not have made his request to that particular traveler.

Assuming the keeper of the pass to know something of the teaching of Lao Tzu, his request could have been made in the form of a list of questions, to which Lao Tzu might have written the answers in the form of brief (or cryptic) notes, as an 'aide memoire'. This might of course also account for the apparent discontinuity of the completed work. If the text were written in answer to a number of questions, the sequence of the text would conform to that of the questions, which might easily have been prepared by Yin Hsi over a period of time, in the hope that the occasion might arise when he would meet with a scholar such as Lao Tzu, with whom he could then discuss his questions. This could account for the apparent repetitions in the text, for two questions both phrased in a similar manner, would presumably be answered in a similar manner.

This concludes the summary of my own beliefs regarding the legend of Lao Tzu and the Tao Te Ching, other than to add the rider used frequently even by those who disagree totally with my own interpretation of the legend. This is that, irrespective of the authenticity of the legend and the problem of identifying its authorship, the majority of scholars date the origin of the text of the Tao Te Ching no later than 400 B.C. Furthermore, there is virtually no dissent among scholars as to its great value as a philosophical, literary and historical work.

Return to Top